Science Heroism

The second GRC Guest Columnist is Terry D. Johnson, a lecturer of bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley. During his graduate work at MIT, he was almost bitten by a radioactive spider.
He is essentially a machine that takes in caffeine and alcohol and outputs hair, paralyzing self-reproach, posts about science at his
blog and the occasional PowerPoint slide.
It ain’t easy being a comic book scientist. You’re either a convenient deus ex machina, or you’re cleaning up after your own spectacular lack of common sense. Despite being undeniably brilliant, you will find yourself carrying the idiot ball more often than any of your teammates. It takes a mind like Reed Richard’s to invent a rocket capable of carrying The Hulk and a giant bomb to another star, and an entirely different kind of mind (looking at you, authors and editors) to think that someone as smart as Reed would consider that a fine idea.
That said, there are some advantages.
There is a fine tradition of science heroism, dating back to the early 1900s with Tom Swift (after whom the modern taser is named). Danny Dunn continued the juvenile tradition well into the 1950s while Doc Savage and his entourage brought two-fisted science into the pulps. These fellows, others like them, and their scientifically-inclined arch-nemeses have been around long enough to merit homages in Planetary, Buckaroo Banzai, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
What makes a science hero? Set aside mentalists like The Shadow or Professor Charles Xavier. A science hero acts with the assistance of technology, not through sheer application of will. I’m also not including anyone using gear they weren’t essential in the construction of. Stargirl smashes evil with a cosmic rod, but so did Ted Knight, and he built it.
Iron Man and Steel are successful industrialists and inventors by day; exoskeletal fashion accidents by night. Dr. Ray Palmer and his protege Dr. Ryan Choi fight tiny crime by manipulating white dwarf matter to their advantage. Forge invents things by instinct, Mr. Terrific by design, and Brainiac 5 by sheer, unadulterated arrogance. Hank McCoy cures plagues between flea baths. Batman’s utility belt is more complicated than my HMO. Blue Beetle (the dead one) built a flying bug and a strobe gun.
When I was a kid, I really wanted a strobe gun.
(I still do.)
There’s also Dr. Henry Pym, who discovered the Pym article along with an entire menagerie of mental disorders. (I have it on authority that there is a Pym Appendix to the DSM IV). Spider-man has the proportional speed and strength of a spider, but he also had spider-tracers and web-shooters of his own design.
I haven’t even started on the villains yet! Doctor Doom, Lex Luthor, Doctor Sivana, The Green Goblin, T.O. Morrow, Wizard, The Scarecrow, The Lizard, Mr. Freeze…
…not exactly ladies’ night, is it?
Oracle is a peerless programmer, though I see her as more of a mastermind than a science hero. The Authority’s Engineer is also a possibility, but she was technically given her trademark technology by the previous (male) Engineer. Top Ten’s Toybox uses her father’s inventions I don’t know about Irma Geddon, and frankly, I’m afraid to ask. Agatha Heterodyne…and already I’ve drifted far from the mainstream. There are few women in the science hero biz, and even fewer who would have their name on the patents for their gear.
Why the disparity?
I would suggest several reasons. Sexism is the easiest to identify. Gender stereotypes adversely affect real female scientists during their
schooling and well into their careers; it is reasonable to assume that those stereotypes act similarly to reduce the role of fictional females in science heroism.
I also suspect that we’re living in the “age of female badasses”, a consequence of an industry-wide correction of the weak female stereotype. Even insensitive
creators are now aware that they will come under attack for overtly sexist portrayals of female characters. An aggressive, martial heroine counters the fading (yet particularly galling) stereotype of the meek, submissive female, and a lazy writer can easily fall back upon this as a defense of other failures by
saying, “How can my writing for this character be sexist? She’s strong!” It’s a mistake to think you can earn credit to exploit certain stereotypes by contravening others.
I’m a nerd that went pro. I own a lab coat, am currently surrounded by white boards filled with equations, and occasionally engage in recreational math. My adolescence was as awkward as those facts would suggest, and having heroes who shared my interests and put them to glorious use meant a lot. Later, when I was inaugurated into the complexities and difficulties faced by a working scientist, I had the optimism the can-do spirit of those gentleman bricoleur I had
spired to become to carry me through the rough patches.
I think it would be cool if women had that, too.